Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Penelopiad’—retelling Penelope’s story

Officially obsessed with Margaret Atwood, though that should come as a surprise to no one. But prior to reading The Penelopiad, the only Atwood book I’d read was The Handmaid’s Tale, and her poem Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing. Similar to the poem, in this book, Atwood takes the part of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, and Penelope tells her own version of the events surrounding the Trojan War.

17645Penelope is always seen as the antithesis to Helen, who was painted as the ultimate “bad woman.” On the other hand, Penelope is always depicted as the perfect, loyal wife, who waits for 20 years for Odysseus to come home, successfully keeping her hundred suitors at bay out of loyalty for a husband she doesn’t know will ever return. However, this story gets plenty updated in The Penelopiad, and Penelope becomes a woman with sass, agency, impatience, and a penchant for plotting.

Penelope begins her tale in the vast, shadowy underworld of Hades. This is a Greek underworld, complete with the fields of asphodel. It’s present-day, and Penelope has seen much in the thousands of years since she died. Finally, she says, it’s time to tell her story.

“Now that I am dead, I know everything,” she declares. And she does. She begins her story by describing her mother the naiad, and how her cousin Helen loved admiration so much she chased it down, and caused the deaths of thousands of Greeks. But more than anything else, Penelope tells the story of her 20 years without Odysseus—weaving the shroud, fending off her suitors, and taking Telemachus down a couple notches.

But Atwood also makes some important changes to the story we know. Most notably, Penelope states that she totally recognized Odysseus through his mask, but that pretending not to was all part of the plan. And most important: the twelve maidens who were hanged for betrayal were, in fact, spying on the suitors on Penelope’s request, thus making Odysseus’ act one of murder. The hanging of the maidens weighs heavy on Penelope’s long-dead shoulders.

The flashbacks are interspersed with Penelope’s musings in the underworld. Down there in Hades, she sees Helen still fending off flocks of admirers, and she sees Odysseus too ashamed to come near her, instead opting to become reincarnated so that he can avoid her. It’s often silly and irreverent:

“I picture the gods, diddling around on Olympus, wallowing in the nectar and ambrosia and the aroma of burning bones and fat, mischievous as a pack of ten-year-olds with a sick cat to play with and a lot of time on their hands. ‘Which prayer shall we answer today?’ they ask one another. ‘Let’s cast the dice! Hope for this one, despair for that one, and while we’re at it, let’s destroy the life of that woman over there by having sex with her in the form of a crayfish!’ I think they pull a lot of their pranks because they’re bored.”

But it is also, at its heart, cultural commentary about the agency of women and how they’re portrayed. Atwood has done her best to challenge stereotypes and still bring to life these allegorical, classical figures, giving them voices beyond their epic songs. And even though the tone of the book is whimsical at times, there are still moments of chilling truth, and disturbing beauty, such as the chapters where the 12 hanged maidens sing their songs:

“Then sail, my fine lady, on the billowing wave —
The water below is as dark as the grave,
And maybe you’ll sink in your little blue boat —
It’s hope, and hope only, that keeps us afloat” 

At its heart, this amazing, slim little book gave me the same eerie feeling of truth that Atwood’s Helen of Troy poem gave me. She obviously has a deft hand with satire and cultural commentary, but to weave those together with classic Greek mythology and make it all accessible and funny? Truly magical. I just adored this book, and it quickly became one of my favorites!


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